As China Marches Forward on A.I., the White House Is Silent

The New York Times has the article As China Marches Forward on A.I., the White House Is Silent.

It is a good idea to be concerned, but there needs to be caution about going overboard for huge, centrally planned initiatives. From the article on China I have picked out the following excerpt.

“We may have a bunch of small initiatives inside the government that are doing good, but we don’t have a central national strategy,” said Jack Clark, a former journalist who now oversees policy efforts at OpenAI, the artificial intelligence lab co-founded by Elon Musk, Tesla’s chief executive. “It is confusing that we have this technology of such obvious power and merit and we are not hearing full-throated support, including financial support.”

The Trump administration’s budget for 2018 aims to cut science and technology research funding across the government by 15 percent, according to a report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“They are headed in precisely the wrong direction,” said Thomas Kalil, who led O.S.T.P’s Technology and Innovation Division under President Obama. “That is particularly concerning given that China has identified this as a strategic priority.”

It is probably true that Trump is going in the wrong direction, but remember that there are many wrong directions to pursue. Trump’s wrong direction is not the only one.

I remember back to the Fifth Generation Computer project by Japan in the 1980s. Wikipedi’s article is a decent summary of Japan’s failure.

The FGCS Project did not meet with commercial success for reasons similar to the Lisp machine companies and Thinking Machines. The highly parallel computer architecture was eventually surpassed in speed by less specialized hardware (for example, Sun workstations and Intel x86 machines). The project did produce a new generation of promising Japanese researchers. But after the FGCS Project, MITI stopped funding large-scale computer research projects, and the research momentum developed by the FGCS Project dissipated. However MITI/ICOT embarked on a Sixth Generation Project in the 1990s.

While the Japanese program still looked like a good idea, there was a book about it The Fifth Generation: Artificial Intelligence & Japan’s Computer Challenge to the World. As I read the book, I started to think that all this hoopla about our needing to mount a response to Japan was a wrong direction.

The strength of our (USA) system was the fact that there was a lot of competition among companies and universities researching the field. There was never a good chance to predict which research effort would lead to breakthroughs. The strength was that many things were tried, and the useful ones would tend to commercial success while the others would fade away. Betting everything on one track would have a high probability of failure.

What has lead to the resurgence of AI in recent history is not any of the things that Japan focused on. Who could have predicted the advance of microprocessors that power our PCs and the advent of the internet and big data?

This is not to say that government financing of research projects is not a good thing. This is just a precautionary tale to remind people that there are advantages to having a somewhat disorganized system. China may be smart enough to use moderation in thinking it can predict what the winning ideas will be.

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